Countries around the world have abruptly put in place stringent border closures and travel restrictions amid the coronavirus lockdown, resulting in airlines grounding flights and severely reducing itineraries. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Britons have found themselves stranded abroad while they attempt to locate repatriation flights.
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Today, the UK government has announced a series of new measures it is putting in place to bring home Britons stuck in foreign countries.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced the new plan of action in Monday’s coronavirus update.
The government will be drawing particular focus to those in countries where commercial flights have been banned, as well as vulnerable travellers including the elderly or those with severe medical needs.
Mr Raab said: “As the countries work to secure their borders and stop the further spread of this deadly virus we appreciate that an unprecedented number of UK travellers are trying to get home.
“And we’re not talking about a hundred or even a few thousand, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people travelling around the world.“
On March 17 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised Britons against all non-essential travel around the world.
This was followed by an update on March 23 advising UK residents to return home.
“Hundreds of thousands have already done so but many travellers haven’t yet managed to get home, from young backpackers to retired couples on cruises,” continues Mr Raab.
“And we appreciate the difficult predicament that they find themselves in. We also recognise the anxiety of families here in the UK who are concerned to get their loved ones home.”
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The Foreign Secretary explained three main ways in government is ramping up action to bring UK travellers home.
The first is working in partnership with governments of countries around the world where Britons may be trapped.
Mr Raab said: “It’s a worrying time for all of those who have been affected and I want to reassure them that this government, their government, is working around the clock to support, advise and to help British travellers get home.
“I’ve spoken to more than 20 foreign ministers around the world in the last week or so to support this effort to keep airports and ports open and facilitate access to them for British travellers.
“Over the weekend I spoke to foreign ministers from Australia, New Zealand, India, Brazil and Pakistan. And I also spoke to the Ethiopian Prime Minister and in all of those cases encouraged them to keep commercial routes flying.
“Given the scale and the complexity of this challenge it inevitably requires a team effort.”
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The government has also partnered with UK airlines including British Airways, easyJet, Virgin, Titan and Jet2 to set up a repatriation effort and ensure those who want to fly home are able to do so.
“The first priority is to keep as many commercial flights runnings as we can, and that’s based purely on the scale and the number of people who want to come home,” explained Raab.
So far the government has brought home an estimated 150,000 UK nationals from Spain, as well as 8,500 UK travellers from Morocco and around 5,000 UK nationals from Cyprus.
“In circumstances where commercial flights can’t operate, we’ve already chartered flights which proved necessary to return 1,400 UK nationals on flights for example from China at the outset of this crisis and more recently from Peru,” continued Mr Raab.
The government will now be injecting £75 million into repatriation efforts in a bid to help commercial airlines continue to fly while keeping ticket costs as low as possible for travellers who wish to book onto flights.
Where commercial routes are no longer an option, the government will send specially chartered “rescue flights.”
Mr Raab explained: “Where commercial routes remain an option, airlines will be responsible for getting passengers home.
“That means offering alternative flights, at little to no cost where routes have been cancelled. And it means allowing passengers to change tickets, including between carriers.
“So for those still in countries where commercial options are still available, don’t wait. Don’t run the risk of getting stranded.”
Meanwhile, special charter flights will be advertised on the government website.
“Once special charter flights have been arranged we will promote them through the government’s travel advice and by the British Embassy or high commission in your country,” said Mr Raab.
“British travellers who want a seat on those flights will book and pay directly through a dedicated travel management company.”
He pointed out that these flights will prioritise vulnerable travellers.
“We’ve not faced challenges like this in getting people home from abroad on this scale in recent memory,” said Mr Raab.
“Airports are closing down or preventing airlines from operating commercial bases, local authorities have placed restrictions on movement that prevent people from getting to the airport, and the critical transit hubs that we rely on for long-haul travel are also shutting down or in some cases limiting their flights.
“Some of these restrictions have been done with very little notice. Some with no notice at all which makes it very difficult to respond. So international collaboration is absolutely vital.”
Finally, Mr Raab highlighted the increased information and resources on offer by the government.
This includes updates travel information on the FCO website which UK nationals are urged to stay up-to-date with, as well as around the clock call centre.
“We also have our call centre working 24 hours a day seven days a week but I know it has been difficult for some travellers to get through,” said Mr Raab.
“Just to give you a sense of the sheer volume on average we normally receive 1,000 calls a day to that centre, where a son Tuesday we received 15,000 – the highest on record – so we have boosted our resources, we have redeployed people to assist in the call centre and we have tripled our capacity.
“Yesterday the call centre answered 99 percent of calls and help Britons get the answers they need.”
The Foreign Secretary concluded: “We’re doing everything we can.”
In response to the update Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: “It is good to hear that the government’s huge repatriation effort is finally underway and will include getting stranded UK residents home, not only where commercial flights are still available but also providing charter flights where there is no commercial option.
“Those who have been stranded for weeks in increasingly difficult situations have told us that communication on the ground is still quite poor so we want to see the government do all it can to provide all the correct advice to get these people back home quickly and safely.”
Britons currently abroad should make plans where possible to return home immediately, and visit the FCO website for more information.
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